30 September 2007

The Internet: Our Last Hope for a Free Press

Published on Friday, September 28, 2007 by CommonDreams.org

by Mark Klempner, a historian, author and social commentator.


I consider the Internet to be one of the world's great wonders. And also America's last hope for a free press.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, there were many people with a lot of things to say, but they generally had no platform. That's why we needed figures like Bob Dylan to be “the voice of a generation.”

The present generation has YouTube, whose motto-irresistible to young people-is “Broadcast Yourself.” So now, for example, a pert 18-year-old known as “AngryLittleGirl” can challenge her peers regarding their lack of critical thinking, especially when it comes to religion, by uploading a video op-ed. As of this moment, her piece has been viewed by more than two million people.

YouTube is but one manifestation of a rapidly expanding “social media” that performs the vital function of promoting honest discussion and analysis at a time when spin, trivia, and advertising dominate the mass market profit-driven mainstream media –or MSM as it is often called on the net. Social media also encompasses web-based interactive communication tools such as blogs, message boards, forums, pod casts, online communities, and wikis.

I have seen bloggers expose mistakes and biases in the MSM within hours or even minutes of an article's release. For instance, when New York Times science writer William Broad ran a piece deflating Al Gore's claims about global warming, numerous bloggers pounced on it for being sloppy and skewed. Among them were Robert Dietz and Julie Millican at Media Matters, who documented how Broad had misrepresented the backgrounds of most of the supposedly “rank-and-file” experts quoted.

I don't know what possessed Broad to so bend his reporting that he would lose credibility across a wide swath of readers (something he has in common with journalist Judith Miller, with whom he co-authored a book), but I do know that the MSM has become consolidated to the point that just a few transnational conglomerates and capital management companies control network TV, commercial radio, and most of our newspapers.

As for the repercussions of this ominous development, John Carroll, former editor of the Los Angeles Times, states them quite clearly: “Gone is the notion that a newspaper should lead, that it has an obligation to the community, that it is beholden to the public.” The current owners, he explains, care only about money, and “are sometimes genuinely perplexed to find people in their midst who do not feel beholden, first and foremost, to the shareholder.”

Bloggers are in an entirely different position: They tend to be mavericks who work for free, and operate far from the sources of power. Feeling no need to ingratiate themselves with the movers and shakers of industry and government, they simply tell it like it is from where they sit as concerned, informed citizens with diverse areas of expertise. Though they don't often have professional training as journalists, many of them exceed professional journalistic standards, because they answer to their consciences alone rather than to corporate honchos and fund managers. We need to hear from such people, and the fact that there are more blogs out there worth reading than anyone has time to read is a hopeful sign.

Of course, the blogosphere is also filled with nonsense, and worse –as might be expected in any open space that lacks gatekeepers. The all-too-human reality of the web is that the majority of its traffic is directed to sex sites. What's more, hate groups of all kinds find it a perfect forum to purvey their sick ideas. Even the benign Wikipedia can be used to disseminate false information with an effortlessness that has earned it the gratitude of propagandists everywhere.

How remarkable, then, that out of the cyberslime the lotus of a truly free press has been able to grow. Citizens seeking to avail themselves of the valuable commentary to be found on the web, as well as the fact checking services of legions of bloggers, can learn to easily bypass the detritus and go directly to those sites that offer valuable content.

Where, though, does one turn for in-depth investigative reporting? Though projects such as The Real News Network are attempting to create an alternative, the MSM is still pretty much the only show in town. Bloggers are generally not trained or equipped to do such reporting, and anyway, it´s a full time job that usually requires travel and a support staff, as well as knowledge and contacts developed over many years.

Newspapers carry out at least 80% of primary reporting. And yet the newspapers have repeatedly failed us, sometimes with tragic consequences, such as during the buildup to war in Iraq. In his documentary Buying the War, Bill Moyers (an exception to the rule that there are no outstanding journalists working in television) exposes how reporters at newspapers such as the Washington Post consistently deferred to the wishes of the Bush administration or were tricked, pressured or seduced into doing so. And behind Bush are the huge corporations that helped to put him into power, including those that own the MSM. What's a citizen to do?

Again I say: go to the Internet. Though it's worthwhile to read the print publications that pursue quality reporting-and some of the smaller ones really need our support-subscribing is not essential: nearly all of the important articles from these publications may be found on the web, and bloggers often link to them. And besides, there is also some fine web-based reporting, such as (to pick an example that is apropos to this discussion) the Salon piece that dissected and disposed of the myth, perpetuated by the MSM in tandem with then press secretary Ari Fleischer, that the exiting Clinton staff had removed the W's from their keyboards, and in other ways vandalized government property.

As our titanic democracy is sinking and the band of trivia and denial plays on, each Internet connection can function as an intellectual life preserver. The net has also proved invaluable as a way for concerned citizens to offer support to each other, and to act together for political and social change.

From Salon in 1995, to Common Dreams in 1997, AlterNet in 1998, truthout in 2001, The Raw Story in 2004, and The Huffington Post in 2005, the news coverage on the Internet has matured to the point where we don't really need to deal directly with the MSM anymore. As my wife says, “No MSG in my takeout; no MSM in my living room.” One household at a time, we'll escape the grasp of the Rupert Murdochs of this world, at least when they meddle with our freedom of the press.

Mark Klempner is a historian and social commentator. His book The Heart Has Reasons: Holocaust Rescuers and Their Stories of Courage was published last year by the Pilgrim Press. He would like to thank Paul Glover and Richard Silverstein for commenting on an early version of this piece.

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